Thomas M. Disch - The Genocides

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The Genocides


1972 - unidentified aliens make the Earth a farm, planting seeds which rapidly grow into immense Plants that obscure the sun, drain all water resources and smother out all animal life. About 250 citizens of the town of Tassel have managed, under the leadership of Old Testament-style patriarch Anderson and his two sons - Neil (stupid, vicious) and Buddy (the aspirant prodigal), to scrape a meagre sustenance from stores and the Plant's sap. Late summer 1979 - the aliens send incendiary machines to eradicate all remaing animal life. Jeremiah Orville (urbane, metropolitan) escapes from the ruins of Duluth with his girlfriend, but she is killed when the pair enter Tassel. Orville is kept alive for his expertise, but he vows revenge on Anderson and his family, taking a sexual interest in Anderson's 13 year old daughter, Blossom. The incinerating devices reach Tassel and the populace find refuge in the hollow roots of the Plants. Anderson becomes weaker and decides Orville shall succeed him but Neil kills his father befor this is revealed. Blossom, fearing Neil's incestuous advances, flees deeper into the roots. Neil, Buddy, and Orville follow but with the arrival of spring the four are all trapped together. Buddy, Blossom and Orville escape from the psychopathic Neil. The remaining humans manage to escape to the Earth's surface before the Plants are harvested. With the birth of Blossom's son there is hope, but the new seeding of Plants can only mean the extinction of all mankind.

In which the Triffids overwhelm Peyton Place and what happens next.

Other books and films have offered stories of the last people on earth facing horrendous circumstances, immense deprivation, and well-nigh certain annihilation, only in the last frame or on the last page to show them stood on a hillock, framed against a rich sun, with heads held high and ready to face a future of harsh potentialities domitable by the force of the human spirit. J.G. Ballard wrote a quartet of disaster novels but they are more concerned with alienated man finding equanimity in a world that mirrors his own spiritual catastrophes 1. Wyndham and Christopher are more than just more than happy to re-enact the Battle of Britain and reheat that old Dunkirk spirit. But Disch wants to face up to the actuality of such a holocaust, and also the death-wish impetus with which all of these stories flirt; "the grandeur in the idea that all the other people threw away and trivialized. It was always aesthetically unsatisfying to see some giant juggernaut alien force take a quiet pratfall at the end (when) the real interest...is to see some devastating cataclysm wipe mankind out. "Thomas Disch interview", Charles Platt, 1980." Disch takes his drama straight, with absolute realism (correspondence please to Ian Watt) the effect for which he is striving.

In delineation of character and interaction between said characters The Genocides owes more to gothic dramas of "seething, barely suppressed tempestuous passions in small-town America" than the feist and redoundable grit offered by Wyndham or H.G. Wells. Disch's limning of monumental catastrophe focuses on the minutiae of individual lives, but shows how their circumstances and the need for survival overpower all the individual's attempts at self-determination 2. Disch treats his story with the same resources and seriousness of purpose as any mainstream, midlist literary novelist, with scenes depicted from the pov of individual characters (hello uncle charles, hello hugh kenner), while particularly noticeable is Disch's adeptness at eliding the passage of time. A mark against The Genocides is a tendency for such lines as: "Only the pain of memory could ease the pain of regret, and nothing could ease the pain of memory", and "He hated the Plants, and that hatred gave him strength," or even "The farmers- their bones as ill-clothed with flesh as that flesh with tattered denim - outnumbered them three to one, and the farmers had been able, while the wolves slept (lambs, might not one better say?), to confiscate most of the weapons and prevent the use of the rest". Most of these poor unfortunates, whose ungainliness and emotional gaucheries presage Disch's later achievements with a balanced, multivalenced prose, occur in the vicinity of Orville, and might be justified as partaking of his personality and actions, but part of the problem must lie in and derive from an aesthetically aspirant writer in his early 20s trying to describe a man in his mid-40s under the most extreme duress. It is the fact, to his credit, that Disch attempts and is capable of presenting, even at this early stage, a variety of styles and tones that such callow striving for effect (which one would find to be the predominant mode in equivalent works from the tonier end of the "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" tropos of fiction) is shown up by the stretches of more mature and efficacious work in this novel 3.

Those who revile Dish for a flippant neo-liberal will not take kindly to the assessment that "one realises in a wonderful double-take that the whole book could haven been written, so to speak, by an intelligent mouse in virgin territory that man has decided to take over. The Genocides is an ecological protest quickened into appalling flesh" (Hilary Corke, The Listener May 11, 67); a rather more literal variant on Disch's theme of the environment - what it does to us psychically, and what we do to it physically - to be seen in an even more polemical form in The Ruins of Earth.

Finally, it was The Genocides that led to Disch being accorded the reputation of Mr. Greyskies Miserypiss - Disch sinning against science fiction's belief in science and man, where every problem posited is a problem to be solved, leading to a world better than man ever knew and Jerusalem builded here, there, and everywhere, Amen. Which rather meretricious attitude is an inheritance from populist American fiction of the later 19th century and earlier 20th:


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